September 2013
#Gurgaon , 90 Views
Faulty Towers

Byline: Samantha de Bendern
Photographs: Sami Siva

Why Gurgaon may end up more like a dystopian novel than happily-­ever-­after.

In September 2012, a young entrepreneur from Austria named Federico decided to move to India. He told himself that the future lay here, and that the ‘old continent’ was on its way out. He and his two business partners decided to move to Gurgaon, thinking that “it would be like New York, and give us the buzz we needed to feel the pulse of the emerging economic superpower that we came to find. Instead, we are in a shitty version of Dubai.”

From its floor-to-ceiling windows, Federico’s high-rise apartment overlooks a wide highway, with similar high-rise complexes beyond. The pièce de resistance in this 200-square-metre flat is the Jacuzzi: large, round, white, plopped into the floor in the corner of the bathroom. It is big enough to seat half a dozen people, and I imagine the kind of wild parties three young, single men could throw here. I ask Federico what it’s like to bathe in it. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I have never managed to get water running long enough to fill it.”

This may sound preposterous to the uninitiated visitor to a city often touted as the symbol of India’s future, where some of the world’s most well known multinational corporations have their offices, and India’s cutting-edge technology companies work out of gleaming office towers. Aren’t we supposed to be well into the third industrial revolution, that of IT, cyberspace and alternative energy? How is it that Federico is so concerned with something like a lack of running water?

Dev Chopra, UN retiree and leading member of Mission Gurgaon Development, a ‘people’s movement… against inadequacies in governance and resultant development’, puts it to me simply: “What is the most important element for there to be life on Earth?”

I want to answer “oxygen”, but sensing a loaded question I answer, “Water.” “Yes,” Chopra beams back at me, “and this so-called Millennium City was built without any planning for where the water would come from. How are we supposed to live without water?”

While opinions may vary, the issue is not whether the city will run out of water, but when. The Central Ground Water Board of the Union Ministry of Water Resources predicts that at “current population levels”, water reserves will be depleted by 2017. The Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) went into somewhat more detail, making headlines in April 2012 with a report that said because of water problems, Gurgaon will be “drowning in its own excreta” by 2021.

According the CSE report, ‘Excreta Matters’, if by 2021 the population of Gurgaon reaches 3.7 million, water demand would be 666 million litres per day. The CSE’s projections are at odds with other research, but what can’t be contested is the importance of correct sewerage planning and sewage recycling as part of the solution to the potential catastrophe looming over Gurgaon, where two thirds of the population is not covered by the municipal sewerage network.

In September 2012, the month Federico arrived in India with stars in his eyes, the Haryana government published the muchawaited Draft Development Plan of Gurgaon- Manesar Urban Complex 2031 AD, detailing how Gurgaon will be developed in the meantime. While the document goes to some length to mention that all new development must be accompanied by adequate water supplies, nowhere does it say where the water will come from. Where the document mentions waste, it is merely to state that more waste treatment plants will be built, not how wastewater will actually reach them.

The programme director for water at the CSE, Nitya Jacob, explains that while some people in authority are aware of the situation, “they are actually pretty clueless about what to do. Most decisions are taken in Chandigarh, where there is little concern for what is happening in Gurgaon.”

This is rather surprising, considering that Gurgaon comes third in India’s per capita GDP, and generates 60 percent of Haryana’s stamp duty. Surely, in a functioning democracy, a state government should be concerned about the city that’s home to their largest taxpayers?

I put this to Major General (retd) Satbir Singh, chairperson of the Residents’ Welfare Association of Sector 23 of Gurgaon and president of Mission Gurgaon Development, during an MGD meeting in November 2012. He laughs, and then, in a more sombre tone, explains that my logic would only work in a place where citizens are stakeholders and believe that their vote can actually change things. Here, the multiplicity of authorities and the skewed nature of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) that has shaped Gurgaon make concepts of local, or even regional, politics irrelevant.

And, according to Dev Chopra, hardly anyone votes in Gurgaon. The rich are safely cocooned in their colonies with private generators, private water supply, and private security guards. They see no link between local politics, tax money and what are considered public services. Mission Gurgaon Development believes that only 20 percent of eligible voters in Gurgaon are registered.

Into this democratic and governmental void the private sector has not only stepped in, but almost completely taken over as the provider of Gurgaon’s public services. This is not your usual PPP where, under guidance from government, the private sector steps into a framework drawn up by the state and takes over some of the functions that the state is either unable to provide, or would provide at higher cost and lower efficiency. At least this is how it was first envisaged when the concept was first introduced in the US and later in the UK during the late 1970s. Indeed, as Bhawani Shankar Tripathy, communication specialist (health) at UNICEF in New Delhi, and cofounder of Mission Gurgaon Development, puts it very clearly: “How can we have a Public- Private Partnership when there is no public sector? What does the ‘Public’ part of the equation do, apart from simply provide the land?”

Here, the concept of PPP has been turned on its head: Gurgaon is, more or less, one big private city, or, more accurately, a collection of private mini-cities. Water, electricity, transport, waste disposal: all are provided for, at a cost, by the private developers who built Gurgaon, and usually rather dismally. With little or no coordination between them, or with the public authorities, they are operating in the vacuum of their mini-city walls with little or no concern for how, ultimately, resources and waste will be managed for the benefit of the surrounding communities.

Inside Federico’s high-rise complex are manicured lawns and immaculately kept footpaths. On the other side of a 10-foot-tall security fence patrolled 24/7 by private security guards, the pavements are crumbling, and just in front of a billboard advertising an idyllic garden city of the future, a large electrical transformer is planted in the middle of a busy road.

This is all eerily familiar. The scenario seems to award prescience to JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, High-­Rise, which plays out in a self-contained luxury tower occupied by a community wealthy enough to buy in, unconcerned with anything happening outside the gates—until necessities like water and electricity begin to fail.

As Ballard saw it, such an isolated structure could only serve to agitate civilised man’s alltoo-recent savagery, bringing out everything selfish and violent in human nature, and in true Ballardian fashion, this is precisely what occurs. The outcome isn’t pretty.

In 1983, Ballard said in an interview, “I would say that a lot of my fiction is, if you like, open-ended. ” To be fair, rich Gurgaonites sequestered from ground reality may not be slaughtering each other in the malls yet, but somehow, suddenly, the claustrophobic madness of High-­Rise doesn’t seem to be a story told almost four decades ago, and the premise doesn’t seem so fictitious, or absurd.

When I pad across the wall-to-wall marble floors of Federico’s expansive high-rise apartment, a closer look reveals cracks in the façade. The light and fan switches have been sloppily daubed over, with paint dribbling over the fixtures. A ventilator fan is placed in a corner of the modern shower stall, but uncovered electrical wires dangle, potentially carrying a deathly charge for anyone venturing too close with wet feet. Even the marble tiles surrounding the Jacuzzi are badly cut. I ask whether the owner of the apartment is not concerned that residents will just up and leave in the face of such shoddy construction. “He does not care,” says Federico. “The value of the property alone has gone up so much that he has already made a fortune.”

I go out onto Federico’s balcony to take in the skyline after dark, and for a moment I want to believe in this perceived emblem of progress, in how mankind can conjure a brand new city out of nothing in a little more than a decade. Then, very much unlike New York or Dubai, some lights begin to flicker, windows darken like eyes gone dead, before somewhere an underground generator comes to life. I think about how the Haryana government can only provide 50 percent of the city’s power needs, the rest drawn from privately owned generators. I think about Gurgaon charging unprepared into the future and I imagine the city as a kind of Ballardian experiment, where like in High-­Rise, barricading oneself in an enclave seems to offer some degree of comfort and safety. I think about how close we are to the Central Ground Water Board’s 2017 prediction, and what might happen should the water run out.